Tuesday, July 28, 2009

downward mobility again - repenting of abuses of power

This week we looked again at Philippians 2:1-11. We considered specifically how the passage speaks to us about our relationship to power. The challenge Paul puts to us is that we are to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus: namely, that he did not regard equality with God as a matter of getting, taking, exploiting but of giving and serving. There is much to be gleaned and many applications to be made from this passage but this week we looked specifically at what it tells us about the danger of misusing power. Right out of the gate we have a problem applying this to our lives because many of us really don't think we have any power to abuse. If we think this, we have not thought enough. Certainly, Paul's poem of Christ's "downward mobility" is a direct confrontation to Caesar and his abuse of power (remember that the Caesar cult of worship was strong in Philippi and that Caesar called himself "savior" and "lord". But in order for us to understand the gospel more fully we must be willing to look at our own misuses of power. These misuses become more clear to us when we consider how far short we fall from having the same mind in us as was in Christ Jesus. What follows are examples of misuses of power that will make most of squirm a bit (it had that effect on me as I searched my heart when I wrote them). But we want to explore these dark places in our hearts for a positive reason; because we are convinced that the road to human flourishing takes a cruciform shape, requiring us to repent of our abuse and manipulation of others and ourselves. The renewal that comes through this process is worth the discomfort.

In order to think this through I will propose a working definition for abuse of power: it is whenever we use our power (wealth, influence, position, etc.) to take advantage of, hurt, or demean another person.

Here are some examples of the misuse of power that we often fall prey to.

Two from the work place -

Managers and bosses:
Use of one's position as a manager or boss to treat one's employees in a way that does not honor their dignity. It is easy to bark orders instead of speaking in a way that we would wish to be spoken to. Another example of misuses of power: deliberately making employees feel uneasy about the security of their jobs as a manipulative power play. Other instances: refusing to find opportunities to step outside of the hierarchical order of things in order to engage one's employees in the fullness of their humanity, refusing to mentor and develop people, not acknowledging good ideas or stealing good ideas from people who report to you, engaging in verbal abuse abuse, etc. - we can all find something to repent of if we have responsibility over others.

Those low on the totem poll:
You may say to yourself, "I have no power to abuse. I have no office, no name on the door and you should see my bank account!". Well, here again, we have not though carefully enough. Examples of the misuse of power by those who are in positions of weakness and vulnerability in the workplace include creating and fostering a culture of disrespect for "the Man". This is so common in situations with which I have familiarity that I would consider it an epidemic. Through gossip, cynicism, and self-righteousness those who are in one sense weaker than those who have power over them can create a subversive structure of power that demeans those in authority simply because they are in authority, prejudging and condemning their "victims" without a trial. Now, of course, there are the very real situations where the weak in the workplace are being exploited but the challenge to the weak at this point is to find a way to work towards justice without engaging in self-righteousness or destructive gorilla warfare in the workplace.

Family dynamics -

a. Parents, do not exasperate your children. While exercising discipline over our children we can too easily resort to abusive words, or simply through a lack of patience we can misuse our authority over them. We must ask God for patience and wisdom and love to inform each of our interactions and for specific help to organize the whole of our lives in a way that helps us succeed in loving our children as we discipline them.
b. The deliberate withholding of forgiveness in order to hold someone emotionally hostage and/or perhaps destroy their reputation. This is an example of when a victim can retaliate by refusing to forgive.
c. Pathological raging. Many learn to manipulate their entire family with their moods. Everyone walks on egg shells to keep from setting off the volcano of one's rage.

Sex as power -

In our culture many become sexualized prematurely with one of the results being that sex operates on its own power, separated from mature emotional love. In turn, one of the results of this is that we have a whole bunch of people who are on one end or the other of a relationship where sex becomes power and is used manipulatively. One thinks of the person who has learned to get his or her way by manipulating others with his or her sex appeal. One thinks of those who are pathologically prone to be manipulated by sex as power, or of the one trapped in sexual addiction. The church has often been little help here because of our focus on rules rather than the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that human beings are made to love and be loved unconditionally and when sex is used manipulatively love is damaged big time. This is why God has prescribed the covenant of marriage - to among other things protect us from sex as manipulation: nestled in the promised and hoped for future signified by vows of fidelity (forsaking all others) a husband and wife learn to give themselves to each other as gifts and help each other develop fully as individuals. (Of course, sadly, many marriages are not places where this happens and in many cases can be death-traps of sexual and emotional manipulation. This reminds us of the depth of our brokenness and how much we need God's grace to be at work in each part of our life. It should also remind church leaders of the necessity of helping people get out of these kind of toxic relationships.)

Victims as perpetrators -

The writing of Miroslav Volf has been an invaluable help here (3 books in particular: Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Exclusion and Embrace.) There is perhaps no group of people more prone to underestimate their ability to misuse power than those who have been profoundly abused in any variety of ways. Volf has considered this at depth from one particular angle. Volf, a Croatian, has meditated upon the violence done by Serbians to Croatians in recent conflicts. Here is an excerpt from an interview on this topic in which he talks about how the gospel speaks to the victims.

This is from an online journal from Calvin College and Seminary:

GARRISON: "Can one forgive those who have perpetrated particularly heinous crimes?"

VOLF: The answer is simple, "I must forgive." And if I cannot, I must be liberated from my inability-both from my inability to want to forgive and from my inability to actually do the forgiving that I may want to do. Forgiveness can be learned.


VOLF: As my former teacher and friend, Lew Smedes -- Mr. Forgiveness, you can almost call him -- has argued in many of his books, forgiveness is an art. It will help us master the art if we keep in mind that we all are sinners, not all equal sinners but all equally sinners. The world cannot be neatly divided into innocent victims and guilty perpetrators. There were periods in history when Croats were on the whole not victims in relation to the Serbs, but perpetrators; and during the most recent war not a few Croats acted as victim-turned-into-perpetrator in search for revenge. So we Croats will find it easier to forgive if we realize that we ourselves desperately need forgiveness.

Volf's point is crucial to our discussion of the misuse of power. The reason we misuse power and the reason each of us must ask God to give us the "same mind that was in Christ Jesus" is because only the gospel that is forgiveness can shape us into a people who do not regard power as a thing to be used to exploit and hurt others but instead see ourselves as those inhabiting and being inhabited by the one who did not regard equality with God as a thing to be exploited but rather a position from which to serve and to love.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does a "rule based" approach to life cloud our ability to see abuses of power for what they are? If so, offer an example or two?

2. Can you think of a mundane occurrence when you have hurt someone with your power or position? What could have helped you act differently?

3. When Smedes via Volf (see above) talks about forgiveness being an art what does this suggest to you about the way you approach growing in the gospel? Does looking at it as an art to be learned give you a different category for thinking about how you approach the struggle you have with forgiving others - does it offer you a new strategy and new tactics?

Monday, July 20, 2009

power in weakness

This week we took up Philippians 2:1-11. The portion that tells Christ's story in poetic language is regarded by some as a likely hymn of the early church. It is hard to know for sure but what we do know is that this story of Christ's "downward mobility" is the story Paul tells that controls his remarks in this entire letter and, arguably, his broader theology of salvation.

For many, this story presents a Jesus who, for a period of time, humbled himself and because he humbled himself became exalted. The implication is that the way up is down for Jesus; and for us, as we imitate him. This view has been promoted for a long time by those who took the verses, "he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself", as meaning that Jesus set aside his divine privileges (also, attributes?) so that he might become humble, live a humble life and die on the cross. In response to this humble servant-hood and obedience, God has exalted him. There is another way of reading this story, though, that represents the approach we took in the homily. We understand this story not to be about a parenthetical period in Jesus' life where he showed radical humility but to be a story about God and the way he is.

In the cultural context in which Paul wrote deities were understood to regard being god as a matter of exploiting, helping themselves to whatever they would want. Moreover, the despotic rulers of Rome and other ancient regimes branded themselves as gods in their own right and certainly regarded this power and status as privileging them to exploit whatever and whomever they wanted. Also, since Adam, humankind had done a very good job of using power and privilege to our own advantage. Against this attitude of exploitation Paul tells a story not just about Jesus incarnate, as if his servant-hood was a parenthesis on his way back to exaltation, but he tells the story of God in stark contrast to the "normal" way of thinking about deity. New Testament scholar, Michael Gorman, puts it this way: "Jesus' exaltation is not the divine reward for his incarnation and death as God's suffering servant (as this text is normally interpreted), but divine recognition that is his suffering servant behavior is in fact truly 'lordly', even godly, behavior. C.F.D. Moule renders the beginning of 2:9 as follows: 'And that is why (i.e. the fact that Jesus displayed the self-giving humility which is the essence of divinity is the reason why) God so greatly exalted him....." Or, as N.T. Wright puts it: ".... the real theological significance of the hymn.... is not simply a new view of Jesus. It is a new understanding of God."

To put all of this another way we may say this. The omnipotent God, the creator of the universe, in the gospel reveals his power in weakness. What would surely have struck a Roman listener of this hymn of Christ would have been the incredibly absurd idea that God would manifest his majesty in the "downward mobility" pictured in this poem. At the top of the heap in the Roman world was the emperor who was regarded as quasi divine. Near the bottom of the heap were slaves, but at the absolute bottom was anyone who was crucified on a cross. Yet, this is where God revealed his power to save. As someone has said, God is not the God of power and weakness; in the gospel he is the God of power in weakness.

I would suggest that all of this carries with it the strong implication that we are to find God's power in our weakness. Now, I know that is no novel idea but I also think that we don't really understand what this means with regard to our spiritual formation. As we grow we soak in God's transforming grace most profoundly when we are stripped bare of our attempts to make a good show of our lives.

Our friend, Chuck DeGroat, at City Church San Francisco talks about spiritual formation and growth in this way: "the road of downward mobility actually leads to glory..... Now, for some of you this might raise a red flag. Many of us have been taught that faith leads to victory. Popular authors sell books promising blessing to those who commit their way to the Lord. And we buy them, because (truth be told) we’re all looking for something to give us quick relief for life’s pain. I was sitting with Laurie several years ago when it dawned on her that her bookshelves were lined with popular writings on the successful Christian life. She had tried to find the answer to her depression for a decade or more, but she said to me, “I feel like they’ve only set me up to fail, and feel even more low in the end.”

The New Exodus way is paradoxical precisely because it requires suffering. As I often tell my classes, if God wanted the Israelites to avoid the wilderness, he would have given them the miracle of a helicopter in order to fly them over it. But we’re all looking for helicopters. In fact, it’d be strange if we liked pain and craved suffering. Even Jesus said in the Garden of Gesthemane, “Lord, if it be your will take this cup of suffering from me.” This is a natural response for all of us. It’s why a good portion of Scripture is taken up with lament and complaint. The problem is that, despite our complaints, God doesn’t give us a helicopter to fly over the wilderness, but invites us to find Him in and through it."

While many of us may welcome this insight with regard to the suffering we experience when we wrestle with illness or the loss of a job, we are not usually encouraged to tie this line of thought to the way we think about our experience of pain as it relates to our depravity. As Christians we wrestle with our depravity until we are made whole in the world to come but too often we imagine the opposite - that we can skip over the wrestling and move right into victorious life, whatever that is exactly. I am going to quote from Chuck again here - this time he is talking about our tendency to deal with our depravity by trying to control it either through denial or behavior modification. Instead, he suggests that we should follow our ache that leads us to sinful behavior (that is sometimes addictive) - follow it until we meet God where our desires are most naked.

Chuck: "We grow and mature (note: stop using the language “we get healed”) as we step more deeply into this ache and find beneath it desire. In this, we find that whatever our drug of choice might be, it is only a false or momentary panacea. One of my drugs of choice is reading. I’ve always hoped to find myself in a book, and I’ve spent hours with dead writers drinking their medicine. The journey has not been futile, as I’ve found that the books or words themselves don’t satisfy, but stir in me something more real. C.S. Lewis said it best in The Weight of Glory: "The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." What Lewis doesn’t say is that we should give up looking at our pasts, or reading books, or drinking wine, or enjoying sex, though in some cases we know these things can become self-destructive (addictive). What he proposes is that we take a look beneath them. If we do this, our hearts are inevitably broken, as we’ll need to grieve the loss of our false gods. But out of the brokenness, new life will come. Our hearts – constricted from our idols and addictions – will beat stronger and grow larger, longing more freely and fully for real life. Honesty will grow. Hope will grow. Relationships will grow, because we’re no longer looking for final satisfaction in them. Our pasts will stop enslaving us, as we stop trying to re-create our lives in the present (forgiveness). Out of the darkness comes light."

What we must learn to do as Christians is stop pressuring each other to be anything other than works in progress. We must, in our community life, put the emphasis on recognizing in the pattern of our brokenness, a pattern of downward mobility that resonates with God's revelation of his power in weakness. We must learn to count as victory our experience of love and forgiveness in the moments where our deepest pain meets God's restorative love and forgiveness. Our categories of what counts for holiness need redefining in light of God's manifestation of power in the ignoble cross of Christ.

Questions for discussion:

1. It was suggested above that looking beneath the surface will lead us to brokenness, leading us to new life, characterized by honesty and a deeper experience of forgiveness which is transforming. Can you think of struggles you have wherein you are not inclined to look beneath the surface? What keeps you from looking beneath the surface? What sort of encouragement do you need to look beneath the surface? What role does your Christian community need to play to encourage you to look beneath the surface?

2. What do you think Chuck means when he says that our pasts will stop enslaving us when we stop trying to re-create our past lives in the present? Can you think of an example where you felt freedom from your past ? What helped you get to that point?

3. What do you think it means when we say that our categories of what counts for holiness need redefining?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

life in community - more Philippians

We continued this week in Philippians, looking again at Paul's call to unity in the face of suffering (Philippians 1:27-2:2). Paul's call to unity depends on - and can only make sense in the context of - a community of Christians who take seriously their commitments to one another. This line of thinking does not often come automatically to many of us today. We often think of church as yet one more experience we dine on in a society saturated with consumerism. Don't like something or someone? Just leave. There is a buffet of options at hand. Don't want to serve others. Fine, just come and consume without giving any thought to giving of oneself. No one will notice. Don't get me wrong: there are seasons of life when one is less involved in Christian community for good reasons and there are all kinds of good reasons to leave one church community and become a part of another one. But when moving around becomes promiscuous and narcissistic, and casual commitment is a life-style it can mean that one has not understood the grand vision of Christian community laid out in the New Testament.

Rowan Williams talks about Christian community in this way: "Breathing the air of Christ, Christ becoming the 'atmosphere' in which we live - to borrow the language of C.F.D Moule - isn't only about being in a state of peace but about being in what some would call a 'dynamic equilibrium'. Our peace is what it is because it is a flow of unbroken activity, the constant maintenance of relation and growth as we give into each others' lives and receive from each other, so that we advance in trust and confidence with one another and God." He goes on to say: ".... a well functioning Christian community is going to be one in which everyone is working steadily to release the gifts of others..... the gift of each is inseparable from the need of each. The giver has to understand both how the gift is to be given into the common life, and has to be aware of what the common life and the obstinate reality of others must give one's own life to be real and solid.... the solid reality of a really functioning Christian community is like that of a good marriage, in which mutual attention, giving and receiving, enjoying and sacrifice are tightly woven together, as both realize that there is nothing good for one that is not good for both, nothing bad for one that is not bad for both, that fullness of life is necessarily a collaborative thing."

This high view of community is why Paul can talk the way he does in chapter two about making his joy complete. Otherwise, his appeal would sound self-serving and condescending (The notion of an apostle saying "Do this for me!" might also imply a condescending sub-text: "since you damn sure won't do it for yourselves!).

Again, Williams: "The apostle, the public witness of Jesus' resurrection who directs the thoughts and prayers of the church, is the one in whom the porous boundaries of life in Christ are most pronounced, the one who senses most acutely both the joy and the pain of other believers..... Being a Christian.... minister..... isn't about managing religious technology for an uninstructed public but about witnessing to the distinctive character of a common life in which each depends on all".

This robust vision of Christian community then is what must come first before any of Paul's appeals and exhortations can be properly heard, whether in Philippians or in his other letters. Indeed, he indicates as much in his grammar in verse one of chapter two. As New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, reminds us, the clauses beginning with "if" fit into the overall grammar not as suppositions but as presuppositions of the conditions God has wrought in their midst: "encouragement in Christ", "consolation from love", "sharing in the Spirit", and "compassion and sympathy". The verse could be translated, "since there is encouragement in Christ", etc. So, based on what God has built, a dynamic community in Christ, Paul can say, "make my joy complete - be of one mind" and say it as a member of the community who needs the other as much as he needs himself.

Questions for discussion:

1. A colleague of mine wrote a very thoughtful post in his blog (see below for link) about suffering with others and repenting of our obsession with self-protection. But then he said something quite important about the complexity of living with others in Christian community: "Of course, there would be much to spell out as to what this looks like and how it manifests itself, particularly among those who have been abused (…because self-protection would not only be the wise thing, but the most godly thing to do)." Taking his important point as a jumping off place, I would expand (not that this is novel) and say that healthy boundaries between people are necessary for a community to be healthy. Can you think of examples of how healthy boundaries are important for a community to flourish? How is one to go about caring interdependently while maintaining healthy boundaries?

2. Can you think of an occasion when someone in your Christian community served you in a profoundly meaningful way? What kind of mark did this leave on you?

3. "Nothing bad for one that is not bad for both, nothing good for one that is not good for both". Do Williams' words (see above for the context) help you think about the foundation, purpose and shape of moral instruction in the church?

Monday, July 6, 2009

More on suffering from Philippians

We continued this week in our study of Philippians. Last week we noted that Paul found hope in the midst of his suffering in prison not by starting with himself and his circumstances but by locating his suffering in the larger story of what God is doing in the world to bring redemption. In quoting from the book of Job when he says that he is confident that his suffering will "result in my deliverance" he is speaking not so much to certainty that he will get out of prison but that he and the gospel will be vindicated. Caesar can invoke the power of the cross and create terror among his subjects but Jesus' death on the Roman cross breaks its power, along with every force of evil and the power of our sin. The resurrection is God's proof that Jesus' atoning death is vindicated in the face of those who mock God's demonstration of power in Christ's humble and loving spending of himself into sacrificial death.

In the portion of Philippians following on this, through to the end of chapter one, Paul continues to talk about suffering but he switches his focus to the sufferings that the Philippian church is entering into. Because he identifies their suffering with his suffering and the sufferings of Christ he is talking specifically about the suffering that one undergoes when one is opposed or abused for one's confession of faith that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

Philippi was a Roman colony and there was a great deal of civic pride associated with that status. The advantages to being a Roman citizen were immense in the empire and it was expected that citizens would give at least tacit support to the cult of the emperor. Caesar worship had a strong presence in Philippi and Caesar was hailed to be savior and lord, the great benefactor of the pax Romana, the peace of the empire (a peace that was kept through oppression and totalitarian rule). For Christians to refuse to confess Caesar as savior and lord (soter and kyrios) and to attach these titles to Jesus Christ was, of course, political dynamite and would raise the ire of the state and many of its citizens: the state for obvious reasons but the fellow citizens of the Philippian Christians would have reason to oppose their Christian neighbors because of the fear of guilt by association and because of the expectation that a crackdown on the entire colony might be Rome's response if Christians grew in number.

In the face of this nascent persecution Paul says to the church, "in no way be intimidated". The Greek phrase he uses that is translated by that phrase uses a word that was commonly used to talk about horses being spooked. So, Paul is saying to the church, don't be spooked or scared - stay on your mission, for you have been given the privilege to suffer for Christ as well as to believe in him. Their suffering for Jesus was a sharing in his mission; their demonstration of the gospel in word and deed is what has brought on the opposition they are feeling just as Jesus was opposed for his message of the coming of God's kingdom. The worship of idols, of power, and of self do not go away quietly and when the circumstances are right the power of evil that is at work in idolatry will seek to kill or at least abuse those who embody Jesus in the midst of this broken world. Paul's main point here is that there is no surprise in this persecution, for it is an aspect of fulfilling the mission of Jesus. But, how should the church respond to this persecution?

Paul gives us a clue in his admonition that they conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. In this phrase the word that the NRSV translates, "conduct", is from a Greek word which can be translated something like, "civic duty". It is from the same word group that we inherit the word politics in English. Paul only uses it here and one or two other places in the New Testament. Since Paul often talked about the life of the Christian using a word which is translated, "walk", one takes note that he uses the word for political, or civic, life here. Why does he use this word? Commentators are divided with some emphasizing that his use of the word is simply to challenge the Philippian Christians to demonstrate in their Christian community what a true polis, political society, should be. Others, however, argue that Paul's use of this political metaphor is for the purpose of encouraging the Philippian Christians to NOT disengage from their socio-political setting in the face of their persecution but rather to continue their living out the gospel in and through the social/political community in which they live. To engage in a manner worthy of the gospel means, among other things, to refuse to allow opposition to define the identity or mission of the church. The Christians at Philippi are to continue defining their mission according their identity with Christ and his mission to bring the love of God in word and deed to those consumed by their sin; those in need of salvation; those opposing the church. Fred Craddock's words are helpful: "They cannot assume that outside opposition in and of itself will create internal unity. Even if it did it would be a unity defined by the opposition. Therefore the church must struggle together for the 'faith of the gospel'. If they cease to act and simply react, then it is no longer the gospel but the culture that gives the church its identity." Or, as Miroslav Volf puts it: "Only those who refuse to be defined by their enemies can bless them".

Questions for discussion:
1. I suggested in my remarks leading into communion that occasions when we experience suffering and opposition often produce in us a reaction that takes us away from the gospel. In Paul's remarks to the church in our passage this Sunday he is talking about a unique suffering because of one's beliefs. Yet, there are some transferable concepts that work well for us when experience suffering and opposition in our lives. Here is a question: if it does - how does suffering distract you from believing and applying the gospel in your life circumstances? Paul was concerned with unity around the mission of the gospel in the face of the Philippians' opposition. Do you struggle with remaining on mission as a Christian and being united to your Christian family and loved ones when you suffer? If suffering always drives you to unity with your Christian family is it a unity defined by the opposition or is it a unity shaped by the mission of the gospel - what is the difference between the two?

2. In an important essay, "Soft Difference", Miroslav Volf explores the relationship between the Christian community and the non-Christian social world into which it has burst, as the first-fruits of the coming kingdom of God. I am going to include a lengthy quote form this essay in order to ask a discussion question based on it:

"The question of how to live in a non-Christian environment, then, does not translate simply into the question of whether one adopts or rejects the social practices of the environment. This is the question outsiders ask, who have the luxury of observing a culture from a vantage point that is external to that culture. Christians do not have such a vantage point since they have experienced a new birth as inhabitants of a particular culture. Hence they are in an important sense insiders. As those who are a part of the environment from which they have diverted by having been born again and whose difference is therefore internal to that environment, Christians ask, 'Which beliefs and practices of the culture that is ours must we reject now that our self has been reconstituted by new birth? Which can we retain? What must we reshape to reflect better the values of God's new creation?'" - Volf

Now, here is my question: Do we think prayerfully, earnestly and imaginatively about when to work to retain, when to work to reshape, and when to reject? Can you give some examples of how to flesh this out in circumstances with which you are familiar?